THE VERY SOUND OF IT WAS INTOXICATING: six days of soul cleansing at a maharajah's palace high in the Himalayas, overlooking the Ganges River and Rishikesh, the birthplace of yoga and Ayurvedic medicine. But for what was supposed to be a relaxing spa trip, my visit to India's new Mandarin Oriental Ananda didn't get off to an easy start.
I couldn't snag a seat on the 40-minute flight from Delhi to Dehra Dun, Ananda's closest airport. (No matter: I hear it's usually canceled.) So I did what any rational traveler would have done—hire a car and driver for the five-hour trip. No sweat, I thought: a chance to see the Indian countryside!
Four hours later we were only halfway there, and I was in a state of misery that no amount of massaging could placate. The sun was beating through the car windows. Cows, pigs, and manic motorcyclists crowded the dusty, narrow, two-lane road. Every 30 seconds, in an attempt to pass slower cars, my Indy 500 driver leaned on the horn and swerved into oncoming traffic.
It took four more harrowing hours to reach Rishikesh. Instead of the idyllic New Age haven I'd expected, there were muddy potholed roads, dilapidated auto-parts shops—and not a yogi in sight. I was tempted to turn around, but soon we were on the tree-shrouded road that zigzags up a mountain to Ananda. The air grew crisp and cool. It became serenely quiet, except for the sounds of crickets and monkeys. Far above, in the evening sky, I could see the lights of the resort. Salvation was within reach.
THE WORD ANANDA IS SANSKRIT FOR "HAPPINESS AND SELF-CONTENTMENT." In the planning stages, the retreat was called Nirvana, which would have been just as fitting. For centuries, people have traveled to Rishikesh to seek enlightenment—the Beatles visited one of its many ashrams in the 1960's. But now, in place of an ascetic dirt-floored hut, enlightenment can be attained in a sumptuous setting managed by one of the top hotel groups.
Ananda quietly opened for a test run last April, with just a few rooms available to guinea-pig guests during India's monsoon season. I decided to take my trip in October, after the rains had subsided and all rooms had opened. That way I could visit anonymously and see if the much-touted spa was worthy of its advance press.
Since women rarely travel alone in India, I invited my 27-year-old brother, Tom, who has accompanied me to some of the world's finest resorts. While he'd never had a massage or a facial in his life, he knew all about luxury and was up to the challenge.
The Maharajah of Tehri Garhwal leased 100 acres of his land to Ananda, but kept most of the estate's turn-of-the-century Moorish-style palace for himself. (He's seldom seen, but rumor has it that he sometimes dines at the hotel.) The annex adjoining the palace now houses an Art Deco lobby, a library with rare books from the maharajah's personal collection, a billiards room whose centerpiece is the 150-year-old hand-carved table, and a regal 2,400-square-foot suite on the second floor.
The rest of Ananda's rooms are in a new building down a small hill. At first glance, the six-story marble-and-beech monolith looks like a Florida condo development with Asian flair. I'd seen pictures of the rooms on Ananda's Web site and in its brochure, but I was still expecting something more authentic. After settling in, however, I found myself focusing less on my quarters and more on the surrounding hills covered with pine and sal trees—and on myself. And I soon appreciated my room's modernity, after spending a tiring day exploring Rishikesh. Nothing could be more refreshing, I decided, than soaking in a deep tub by a picture window, watching the Ganges snake through the valley.